Mulattoes in colonial Maryland: The effects of colonial law on patterns of freedom and enslavement

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Hunt, Larry L. 2022. “ Mulattoes in colonial Maryland: The effects of colonial law on patterns of freedom and enslavement.” Social Science Quarterly. 103: 945–958.


Objective This study analyzes Maryland colonial law and empirically examines two sets of historical data to explore how legal codes affected the assignment of mulattoes (mixed-descent persons) to the legal categories of freedom or enslavement. Maryland law was concerned with regulating the sexual relationships between people of European descent and people of African descent, especially when the relationship was between an enslaved African man and a free European woman who might produce a mulatto child having free legal standing.

Methods Analysis of colonial census data and Prerogative Court Records are used to estimate both the size and the composition (enslaved vs. free) of the mulatto (mixed-descent) population in the colony of Maryland in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Results The results of the analysis of historical data show that colonial law and its sanctions limited the size of the mulatto population; it was small as expected. However, there were no dramatic differences in the proportions of enslaved and free mulattoes, a pattern that ran contrary to the logic of colonial law. The lack of any dramatic difference between the two status groups may be explained by demographic patterns specific to the early stages of colonization.

Conclusions The attempt of colonial lawmakers to limit the proportion of free mulattoes was not effective, at least in the initial periods of building a slave society. Some suggestions for future research combining the efforts of historians and geneticists should examine how the relationships between the European and African descent populations likely had distinctive patterns in the early formation of enslavement as an institution compared to a later period where enslavement became the fate of most persons of African descent.